People in Your Neighborhood: Jad Abumrad

Jad

On a recent weekday,  Jad Abumrad was tucked into a booth in his local diner in Brooklyn, sipping coffee, wearing headphones, and checking his phone. “I’m not listening to podcasts,” he said, looking up. “That feels like work.”

That’s one of the only unfortunate side effects of being one of America’s most revolutionary audio hosts and producers. Abumrad has been making his signature show, the cinematically produced, experimental audio-ish hit Radiolab, since 2002 (or, in its more recognizable form, since 2005). Any show that is inquisitive, brainy, and interested in observing and explaining the world owes it a huge debt.

Lately, Abumrad has been exploring something new: the Supreme Court. As the host of Radiolab’s first spinoff, More Perfect, which recently wrapped its first season, he explored how the Court has become such a central part of the functioning of our government, as well as specific cases that have profoundly changed our day-to-day lives.

We ordered breakfast, and he told me how things are going.

I love that you wanted to meet at this diner, I love places like this.

This is my favorite place in the world, because we can bring the kids here and they’ll be screaming their heads off and nobody cares. My seven year old is just starting to kind of figure out what I do. Now he’s like, “Dad, I’ve got to work on a story.” I go into his room and he’s got a stick taped to another stick, and he’s using it as a microphone.

More Perfect was Radiolab’s first spin-off. Why that, and why now?

I think that it’s important to try new things. Particularly when you’re at this stage of a project, when the expectation is that you’ve just got to keep making more and more. It’s important for me personally, for the team, and also for the audience that we just change it up a little. I think the real reason is I don’t really understand the Supreme Court, and every story sort of begins in that place where you’re like, “I don’t really get this, but I’m kind of interested.”

Do you want to have your own TV show? Is that something that appeals to you? You must have
offers.

Really, More Perfect actually has gotten a lot of TV interest, which is really surprising to me. I’m not one of those people that wants to be on stage. I would like to be heard, and I would like to sort of dominate the world as most people in broadcasting would, but I’d like to do it from my room. I’m one of those people. Just let me be by myself, but I want to communicate.

Obviously, Jonah Lehrer was a big contributor to the show for a long time. His new book just came out. I’m wondering, do you plan on reading it?

I think I will read it at some point, yeah. The whole thing was a little painful to see… he is a friend. It sucks to see your friends go through that. It sucks, professionally, to have to go through that as well. But in some way the professional cost is one we could absorb pretty easily. All the stuff that happened didn’t happen on Radiolab. It was awful to see.

Where’s your head at? Is that where your thoughts are these days? With More Perfect? With Radiolab?

Obviously my time is limited, and probably my time will be more on
Radiolab than anything else. That’s still the center of it. I feel very proud and very close to More Perfect. It feels in a way a more undiluted expression of who I am at this moment in time.

I’m really interested in … this is going to sound cheesy, but America right now. I spend my days thinking about what does it mean to be an American. We all are in some way. As the kid of an immigrant, it’s fascinating to me that we have these laws that we fight about. That’s just interesting. It’d be so much easier if we had a king. You know what I mean? There’d be no argument. I think it’s really interesting that it’s, like, this experiment, and that this branch of our government has become so important to it.

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